She stared at him over her wine cup, which the servants kept filled. She drank more than was proper for a young girl, her aunt had said when Cat was her fosterling. Her aunt had despaired of teaching her courtesy; her aunt had despaired she’d make a good marriage. But Cat doubted she'd lack that, noting how the men’s eyes followed her red-gold hair and her tight bodice. She was well-born, she had land and looks; she would cut her swath. Her father only encouraged her. After her mother’s death her father had taken courtesans; he told her they were easier than wives.
Did their high-born guest know she was staring at him? He must. Ah, the long line of his cheekbone, down from his eye, the blue of the winter sky. He was tall, lanky, blond, a northerner. He had bested Angus with the sword three times out of three, the third making Angus’s sword fly across the room, and Angus the best fighter in the household. Her father had drawled that it was good it wasn’t a fight to the death, wasn’t it? Angus scowled, but the northerner, Ragnarr, gave him a smile, picked his sword up and handed it back. He was clever and charming, the northerner. Their get would be handsome. Though she didn’t want to be saddled with a bawler yet; the root-woman had taught her a few things.
This was bigger game than stable-boys. This was love, the true love of the songs. Cat would hedge her bets. Casting the northerner a sidelong look, she allowed her maiden to lead her upstairs.
“... and put it in his drink, yes, in the afternoon, when they are parched. And if he says the water tastes strange, say it is what we do in our country, to keep water fresh in the skin.” She patted the young man’s scrotum. Faolan was cross-eyed in love with her, and jealous of the northerner, thus happy when she asked his help to witch the man--to impair his fighting arm at the games, she said. Faolan believed what he wanted to.
“Oh, Cat--can we, may we again--” For answer she sat up and shook her long hair off her bare breasts. Above their ferny hillside bower young foliage laughed in the sun, dancing, throwing leafy shadows. On the path below, her maiden kept watch. Faolan’s arm lunged across her, but she threw it off. A moment’s peace was all she wanted. She could not even piss alone; her maiden stood by the door.
She let Faolan’s second attempt succeed, after a tussle seated herself athwart him, hand pouching his scrotum and squeezing when she wanted. She wondered whether the northerner would have anything to teach her.
She thought of him, his muscled shoulders, his white teeth against his wind-burned skin. Strong hands that could handle her rough or soft. Faolan’s hand stole up to her nipple, and she slapped it; he distracted her.
Then, softening--Faolan’s face wore a look of hurt--she leaned and gave him a kiss. She imagined she was kissing Ragnarr.
“My red cat, you do not know what you ask. These northern men do not treat women as we do.” Her father picked his teeth with his short knife, sitting in his outer chamber. Shadows fell across the wall’s timbers, their heads bound in bronze, from a gilded lamp with seven wicks hung from a ceiling beam. In the next room stood her father’s great bed, clothed in crimson with an ermine cover. She wanted one of her own like that; she wanted to be a queen. She wasn’t listening.
“I want him, with the golden hair, and the sword arm none in this household can withstand.”
“We can do it in such a way as you ask, but it goes against my honor. He has done nothing ill to us, and it is a trick.” Cat shrugged. Her witchery wasn’t working, or not yet. Ragnarr’s life-thread was too strong perhaps. She’d use what came to hand. “What will he do for your marriage portion?”
“His father is a king. He will pay my marriage portion.”
“And what if he wants you to go to his land?”
“I shall do it, then,” Cat said. She’d not considered that possibility. Would he not want to stay among her father’s rolling hills (that had been her mother’s), with their flocks of cattle and sheep? She set the other possibility out of her mind.
Her father examined the point of his knife. “Look you, Cat, this thing turns on your honor. It might be called into question.”
“No one here will give the lie to what I say.”
Her father looked at her under heavy brows, a smile not quite settling on his lips, under his close-trimmed beard. “Not before witnesses. But whispers travel.”
For answer Cat faced him out. Her father took a swig from his cup of southern wine. “As you love me, promise me you will do this for me,” she said.
A long silence passed. He heaved a sigh. “I do love you, Red Cat. You have my word. A king’s word. Though it goes against my mind.” He stood and shook out the arms of his crimson tunic. “Now leave me, daughter, and send the daughter of Cascorach to me, if you will.”
She turned out of her father’s chamber grinning.
The next day, she caused a hunting party to be set up, with fifty of her own hounds, and she strung her bow, bound and filleted in bronze and gold, and brought along her men and her father’s. The foreigner had his own party. She rode her white mare, Wave of Snow, that as a filly had been faster than any of the colts; the foreigner had his black horse that was half her horse’s worth. They chased deer in the forest.
She rode more slowly than she might, out of courtesy, noting his horse’s lesser strength. When they raised a hind, they both shot. Her arrow wounded the animal in the shoulder, so that the wound trailed blood but the animal still ran. They gave chase through the wood.
Late afternoon: the May sun fell through the trees like gold coins; dappled shadows crossed the path; crushed grass smelled sweeter than honey. The hounds bayed ahead of them. Cat’s and Ragnarr’s horses thundered on the path, neck against neck; ahead the deer’s hindquarters flickered among the trees. Full of the chase, she urged on her horse, not thinking of Ragnarr, but in the cluttered underbrush the northerner kept up.
She and Ragnarr left their men behind, and at last she suggested they rest. “The wound will slow the animal, and the blood will show its track. We’ll catch it toward dark.” She threw her cloak into the long grass at the foot of an oak, and sat down leaning against the seamed trunk. The sun angled across her, catching the curls of her red hair, the golden down at the tops of her breasts. She gazed up at the man on his horse, a look that might have been demure.
He swung down. Reared on songs, she looked forward to a high badinage of poetry, a run of metaphor like salmon in a stream, but he didn’t say much more than the stable boys. He grinned, showing his white teeth, and put his hand into her bodice. For a moment she was almost frightened, though she’d planned it this way. After all it was nothing she’d never done before. She made sure to play the modest maid, and not run the action as she was used to.
He was well-sheathed, panting and red in the face, and she was afraid he’d finish soon, when came a rattling of bushes, a drum of hooves, and ten men on horses burst into the grove, led by her father. His face was grim. “Ragnarr son of Olaf, what do you do there with my daughter?”
Ragnarr’s face fell blank; his mouth and eyes fell open; he had nothing to say. His member went flaccid too. Cat drew away decorously and folded her skirts, trying not to catch the eyes of the youngest three of her father’s men.
“Cover yourself, man,” said the king in disgust. “You must make reparation to this lady, my daughter. She may choose which she prefers. You may pay a fine of 50 heifers, none more than a year old, or she may take you as husband, in which case you must pay a goodly marriage portion.”
Ragnarr gulped, and frowned, and looked across at Cat. She stood and shook out her skirts, smoothed her glinting hair into its fillet; she took her time. She drew herself to full height. “It is a hard question, and touches on my honor, Father.” The men, well-coached, did not snicker. She looked into Ragnarr’s blue eyes, opaque as late ice on the lake. “I will take him for my husband, Father, to maintain my honor and yours.”
The lines along Ragnarr’s cheeks seemed to deepen. A local prince might have asked an oak-priest to make judgment, but Ragnarr did not know their ways. “Very well,” he said to Cat, his frown deepening as well. “Have it that way, if you choose.” She returned him a straight look.
If he does not love me yet, he shall soon, withal.
The hunting party came up, behind the king and his men. One of the party was Faolan; she watched him take in the scene. She’d not thought she’d care about his hurt. “Faolan,” she called, “the hind is still ahead, wounded. Will you catch her for me? None so good as you.”
“That is true, my lady,” he said. Wheeling his horse, he rode away.
They were to wed in the Oak Moon; the Hawthorn Moon was unlucky for marriage. Ragnarr’s half-brother Margad came south in his long ship, carrying her marriage portion: bars of gold, and gold plate; a king’s cloak-pin in silver with a green stone; a dozen suits of fine clothing; and a chariot worth three times seven serving maids. The half-brother was a year younger than Ragnarr, crooked, dark and smooth of speech; the two were very thick over their wine cups in the evenings before the wedding, whispering and looking at Cat. She held her head high.
Ragnarr and she were kept apart by convention, but when she crossed his path she’d search his face. His courtesy was studied, but always she felt him wanting to leave. She could not credit it. He would avoid her, Cat, whom all men wanted? Once in the stables, their people distracted, she caught his hand and said, “Ragnarr, do you not--“ but after one falcon’s glare his eyes filmed over. She did not dare finish her question, she who dared anything.
The northern party had brought a harper called Cairell, a man of Cat’s people, and the eve before the wedding he sang courtship songs in the hall. Ragnarr and his brother excused themselves early, pleading a need for sleep. Cat, wistful for no reason she cared to own, sat up late. At last there were only the harper and her and the last log on the fire, red glow of coals and butter-yellow flames. Her maiden lay asleep, head on the table.
The bard finished a lay, and let his harp stand, and stretched his arms and yawned. “My lady, will you not sleep? ’Tis your wedding day in the morning.”
She looked into his clear eyes, grey as water under cloud, and her heart felt low. He was a young man still, Cairell, and comely in his way, with his wolf’s eyes and dark hair. “My heart is heavy, harper,” Cat said, “though tomorrow be my wedding day.”
The harper drew his harp between his knees and began repairing the tuning. “But you love the man you marry.”
“I do,” said Cat. The harper met her eyes; she looked into the fire.
Cairell turned a tuning peg. “I have heard that ill-gotten gains run through the fingers like water through a weir.”
“I have heard that stolen fruit is sweetest,” Cat retorted.
“Should the wild cat lie down with the falcon, or the wolf bitch with the hawk?”
“Shall not the wild cat lie down with the salmon she has caught in the mountain stream?”
“The salmon has eaten the hazelnut.” And knows all, Cat knew, for she was well-taught. “The falcon eats the foolish hare.”
She changed tack. “The ivy grows sweetest clinging to the oak.”
Cairell smiled. “The ivy pulls the oak down. The hawthorn stands tall, covered in white flowers, thorns on guard.”
I shall slap you, harper, she thought, but she only said, “I am weary after all. Good evening to you.” She roused her maiden, and they walked through the dark house, bronze fittings glinting from their lamp. Cat thought of the harper’s smile, and half-wished she’d confessed her doubts. But the harper was of Ragnarr’s company, and the idea glanced off her pride.
At the wedding feast, Ragnarr won the games, except Faolan took the foot-race and bested Ragnarr with his bow. The harper Cairell won the harpers’ competition. Ragnarr’s dark, bent brother beat Cat’s father at chess. As forfeit the king gave him a bronze arm-ring inlaid with spirals of gold.
The evening passed, and the ladies about Cat giggled, insipid wives of her father’s men. When she came to her marriage bed, she found Ragnarr, drunk on mead, flat on his back and snoring. The open window let in a breeze, and along the hip of the hill, furred with forest, she saw the first grey light. She found the bottle of wedding mead on the bed-table and drank herself to sleep.
Ragnarr’s brother’s ship waited for them on the coast. The next morning, Cat and all her goods and plate left with an ox-train for the north. All day Ragnarr rode ahead of her, and though Wave of Snow could have pulled even, she let him alone. I chose this; I will endure it. With time, his temper will change.
That evening she came to him in his tent, in the manner of a good wife. He watched as she climbed under his marten-skin coverlet. She sat next to him, studying his face with its long bones.
Ragnarr hooked his hand into her unbraided hair, doubled it around his fist, and yanked her head to the level of his knee. “You tricked me,” he observed. “I let it stand, and my father let it stand, because your father is a powerful man.”
“He still is,” she said between gritted teeth, staring at his thigh. “He will--“
“He will do nothing,” Ragnarr said. “He has the marriage portion; this is all agreed upon; we are going to my country. There the laws are different, and a wife’s duties as well. You will come to my father’s house and act as a northern wife acts, and learn to fear me, I think.” He shoved her head into the coverlet, ripped the back of her dress from neck to hem, and took her from behind.
As he lay snoring, she watched him in darkness. On the dressing-stool lay her short knife, with which she could repay humiliation. But she was among Ragnarr’s men, and if they found her knife in his throat, she’d end the same way.
If I run, he’ll catch me. The roan Margad brought him is the equal of Wave of Snow. I would travel a prisoner, my hands tied to the pommel. Her mind ran from side to side, a rat in a trap.
The remainder of the journey, she sat up most evenings till dawn. Sometimes the harper Cairell sat with her, playing songs of the deaths of heroes. She caught his wolf’s eyes on her, but she looked away. He played no courting songs.
I am the Red Cat. I was not made for a cage. In my father’s house, I took anything I wanted. I took Ragnarr. But I chose wrongly. And I cannot unmake my choice. The fire flickered, poured into spiral shapes, but gave no answer.
One evening, Ragnarr stayed up late with her, as did his brother. The harper he dismissed, and all his men, and he sent away her maiden, so it was just the three of them.
Ragnarr called his brother close and threw his arm around him, him with the black hair and narrow yellow face, the clever chess player too bent to fight. “My brother and I are close as full kin, though we have different mothers,” Ragnarr said. “Closer than brothers. Indeed you may say we are the same person.”
Cat frowned. What game is this? Ragnarr gave his brother a push, and Margad moved to sit beside Cat. He stroked her hair, a river of pulsing red gold in the firelight. “We are the same person,” Ragnarr repeated. He grinned.
Cat threw off Margad’s hand, which had fallen to her bodice. But close on her other side sat Ragnarr, who put his hand on his knife hilt. “This you will do for me, wife,” he said, “and whatever else I ask. In my country, wives are property.”
She looked into his blue eyes, in truth like a falcon’s, though a falcon’s are gold. He saw no fear in hers, but she saw neither lenience nor love in his. She saw suddenly that he would exact revenge for the rest of his life.
By a well on the wayside, she stopped to pray, hitching Wave of Snow to the well-head. The oxcarts groaned past her. She spoke under her breath: Lady who protects maidens, lady of story and song, lady who forges the sword blade, lady who heals, help me in my plight. She took a gold brooch, a piece of her mother’s, and tossed it in the well. The brooch plunked, and she watched it founder, down through clear water into dark. So I lose the half the ready gold I came with, she thought. Yet the act made her heart lighter.
Toward the coast, they came to forest that had burned some years before. Ragnarr had insisted that she, Cat, do the cooking in the camp, a job below her station. To fight him would only show how few men in camp were hers; she swallowed her pride. Hunting mushrooms in the wood took her away from the slow ox-train, from Ragnarr and his brother; she was happy to do it.
Dappled sunlight fell; the burned trunks still standing were tall, soot-black, mixed with saplings in leaf. The light made her think of deer-hunting. She turned her thought aside with a pang. Along the black-burned, rotted forest floor, where few green things pushed, she found a dozen puff-balls, and another dozen; then her maid brought her a skirt full of mushrooms to look over. They looked like puff-balls, but Cat frowned. “Throw those away, foolish girl. Those are destroyers.” The girl had ever been a witling.
Her maiden threw the mushrooms into wood-mast in the hollow of a burned oak, where sprang a few bluebells, sacred to the lady of wells.
With her own hand that evening Cat made supper, and in sight of all she shared a plate with her husband. It was, she thought, a roll of the dice: Stay a slave at Ragnarr’s side, be his bride in hell, or be shut of him. The future looked to her like a hall at midnight, with women putting out lights one by one. She called on the lady of sword and hearth and swallowed her stew.
In three days Ragnarr took sick, his entrails clenching. Cat took sick as well, lay sweating and delirious in a bed across the camp from his. She was sick a full seven days, so sick they waited till week’s end to tell her that her husband was dead.
Margad came to her bedside. “This illness, I fear, has marred your looks, my lady.”
She moved slightly on her pillows. “You were ever honest, Margad.”
“Now Ragnarr is dead, I am next in line to my father’s seat.” Cat nodded slowly. “I loved my brother dearly, yet his loss means power for me. Such is the will of the gods.”
Again Cat nodded, though the custom he described was strange to her. Among her people, only a whole man could be king. “I loved your brother also,” she said, in a husky voice. “We did not always agree. But full well I loved him.” Once upon a time.
But love bred my trick, and my trick his death. The world would have been better with him alive, fighting and shining, and me unmarried.
Margad stood. “By the custom of this land, you return now to your father’s house. You have my leave to go. Give your father my goodwill.” He could have taken me north for his own ill-use, Cat thought, but my father would have fetched me, did it start a war. Margad wants to count his gains in peace. He thinks ahead; not a bad thing.
She made herself take his hand. “Thank you, Margad.”
Cairell escorted Cat home. His new lord Margad had loved him little; perhaps Margad saw how much the harper saw.
The nights grew longer; the summer stars shimmered beyond their fire’s smoke. One night Cat let her maiden go to bed and sat late listening to the bard. “The roe returns to her own country, and ’tis a buck of her own country that mounts her best,” the harper said conversationally, between songs. Perhaps he referred to the song just past.
“When the linnet is heavy-hearted, she will not sing, or fly to mate.”
“Yet what raises the heart like singing? The roe flees from the buck, but he pursues her, and when she is tired she is pleased. The wild cat brings down roe and buck, yet she submits gladly to the male of her kind.”
Cat studied her traveling shoes, leather once crimson. “The songbird who pursues the cat is ill-omened.”
“The cat may think the songbird caught, yet he leaves her but a feather.”
Cat gave him half a smile. The harper watched her generous mouth and the red-gold hair that spilled down her back. “When the wild cat fights the falcon, neither wins,” he said, gently.
In the darkness, the trees’ limbs were painted with light. “The falcon died, and the world is poorer.” She thought of Ragnarr fighting Angus, returning his fallen sword; her eyes filled with tears. She looked away from Cairell into the fire. “It is true, what I heard once: the wild cat has no business with the falcon. Let the gods set fate, not me.”
The harper stroked out a long rippling sound. “Who can tell the will of the gods? Yet it is summer, and I sing of other things.”
“Sing a courting song, if you like. But I am weary of love.” Cairell began to tune his harp; the firelight caught the planes of his face. She said under her breath, “Though the cat who does not pursue the songbird is not a cat.”
The harper smiled into his harp, and the fire leapt under the trees.
© August, 2014 Melanie Henry
Melanie Henry has more than 20 years experience as an editor and has worked on fiction, screenplays and videogame scripts. She has published several short stories in the Seattle area neopagan paper Widdershins.